The big day is over. After months of legal wrangling – and more than 100 days after the release of his report detailing Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election – former special counsel Robert Mueller took questions from Capitol Hill lawmakers for hours on Wednesday.
(Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee in the morning and the House Intelligence Committee in the afternoon.)
I watched all of it and collected my key takeaways in real time. They’re below.
1. Trump’s tweets showed how anxious he actually was
President Donald Trump and his aides have gone out of their way to paint the President as annoyed but unconcerned about Mueller’s testimony. “No, I’m not going to be watching, probably, maybe I’ll see a little bit of it,” Trump told reporters on Monday in the Oval Office. “I’m not going to be watching Mueller because you can’t take all those bites out of the apple. We had no collusion, no obstruction.”
Except that Trump’s Twitter feed – a direct window into how he’s thinking and feeling at any given time – sent the exact opposite message. By 8:15 a.m. on the east coast, the President had already sent seven tweets about the Mueller hearing, tweets that largely revisited many of his old hobby horses, like this one: “Why didn’t Robert Mueller & his band of 18 Angry Democrats spend any time investigating Crooked Hillary Clinton, Lyin’ & Leakin’ James Comey, Lisa Page and her Psycho lover, Peter S, Andy McCabe, the beautiful Ohr family, Fusion GPS, and many more, including HIMSELF & Andrew W?”
Is that the tweet of a man who is entirely unworried about what the former special counsel would say – and what it might mean for his political future? Yeah, I don’t think so either.
2. Mueller disappointed Republicans
In his opening statement, Mueller made clear that he would be unable to address anything related to the origins of the counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election or the so-called “Steele dossier,” an opposition research document put together by former British spy Christopher Steele.
President Trump has long insisted that the entire investigation – the initial probe which led to the appointment of the special counsel and all that followed from it – was illegal because it was based on the Steele document, which contained research that was partially funded by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Mueller’s affirmation that he would not answer any questions about the genesis of the probe and/or the Steele dossier took a major line of questioning off the table for Republicans.
3. … and Democrats
In that same opening statement, Mueller said he would not address any questions involving Attorney General William Barr or the actions of Congress. That’s a big blow for Democrats, who very much wanted to explore differences in public statements about the special counsel investigation between Mueller and Barr, particularly as it related to how Barr characterized the findings of the report on obstruction.
4. Mueller was shaky – especially at the start
If Democrats hoped that Mueller would easily bat away Republican attacks – on him and on his report – they were sorely disappointed in the opening moments of his testimony. Mueller seemingly contradicted himself (and the report) when he told Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking Republican member on the committee, that collusion and conspiracy were not the same thing.
Mueller also seemed to struggle to hear and/or understand questions from member of both sides as well as to find various references members were making to the Mueller report, asking for questions to be repeated. Democrats viewed the hearing as a chance for the public to hear what the President did (and didn’t do) from a straight-out-of-central-casting prosecutor. Mueller didn’t come across like that.
5. Mueller directly contradicted Trump on FBI job
On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted this: “It has been reported that Robert Mueller is saying that he did not apply and interview for the job of FBI Director (and get turned down) the day before he was wrongfully appointed Special Counsel. Hope he doesn’t say that under oath in that we have numerous witnesses to the interview, including the Vice President of the United States!”
Except … under questioning from Republican Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, Mueller directly contradicted Trump’s version of events. As Gohmert was attacking Mueller’s alleged conflicts of interest, he cited Mueller meeting with Trump the day before he was appointed as special counsel as a job interview for the open FBI spot. “Not as a candidate,” for the job, Mueller said.
So someone is lying here. Worth noting: Mueller’s testimony was under oath. Trump’s tweet was, uh, not.
6. There were actually two different hearings
When Democrats asked questions of Mueller, they mostly followed this blueprint: a) praise Mueller for his service b) ask Mueller to draw conclusions from his report c) when Mueller declines to do so, read a portion of the report d) say that Trump clearly obstructed the investigation and e) thank Mueller for his service.
When Republicans asked question of Mueller, they mostly followed this blueprint: a) yell at Mueller b) ask him questions about Christopher Steele that – per point No. 2 above – he has already said he will not go into and c) conclude that Mueller unfairly persecuted Trump and his inner circle.
The whiplash was stark. And meant – stop me if you’ve heard this before – that people will likely hear what they want to hear coming out of this hearing.
7. Mueller said that he didn’t consider indicting Trump on obstruction because of Justice guidelines. Except…
In an exchange with Democratic California Rep. Ted Lieu, Mueller said, unequivocally, that the reason that he did not even consider indicting the President on obstruction charges was because of guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel (within the Justice Department) that a sitting President cannot be indicted.
That contradicts repeated assertions by Barr that the OLC ruling was not the only reason that Mueller didn’t indict Trump. It also seemingly contradicts a May joint statement from spokespeople for the special counsel’s office and the Department of Justice that said this: “The Attorney General has previously stated that the Special Counsel repeatedly affirmed that he was not saying that, but for the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice. The Special Counsel’s report and his statement today made clear that the office concluded it would not reach a determination – one way or the other – about whether the President committed a crime. There is no conflict between these statements.”
When questioned about this seeming contradiction by Republican Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko, Mueller said only that he “would have to look at it closer.” Uh, yeah.
Mueller later clarified – during his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee – that he had misspoken to Lieu when asked about the role the OLC opinion played in his decision not to consider charging Trump. “We did not reach a determination as to whether the President committed a crime,” Mueller said.
8. Mueller came to life when his underlings were attacked
In a rare break from a low-key performance in front of the Judiciary Committee, Mueller pushed back hard against Florida Republican Rep. Greg Steube’s attacks on the political affiliations (and donations) of the lawyers who worked for him in the special counsel’s office.
Mueller said that at no time in his 25 years of doing just this sort of thing had he “had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done.” That is a clapback at not just Steube but also Trump, who has been fixated for much of the last two years, on donations made to Hillary Clinton by some members of the special counsel’s office.
9. Mueller (re)confirmed lots of details Trump doesn’t acknowledge
Donald Trump was clearly thrilled with the way the morning hearing went. “I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing,” he tweeted just after 1 p.m. ET. “Now, after 3 hours, Robert Mueller has to subject himself to #ShiftySchiff - an Embarrassment to our Country!” And while it’s clear that Democrats did not reap the huge wins some of them expected they might, it’s also true that Mueller confirmed, verbally that is, lots of facts that the President of the United States seems reluctant to admit. Among them: a) Russia interfered in the election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton b) the Trump campaign was thrilled about that effort and c) Trump was involved in business dealing in Russia (the discussions of the construction of Trump Tower Moscow). None of that is good news – at all – for the President and his many past denials on these issues.
10. Mueller said Trump’s WikiLeaks comments were “problematic”
Democratic Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley read a series of tweets and quotes from Trump during the final months of the 2016 election in which he touted WikiLeaks, which was releasing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Quigley asked Mueller what he thought of Trump’s actions. Mueller responded: “Problematic is an understatement, in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”
In terms of Mueller’s willingness to scold or smack down Trump, this was about as far as he was willing to go.